The best of Toronto’s art scene 2019

December 16, 2019 § Leave a comment

Our picks for the year’s top exhibition, performance, film program, new art spaces and more

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER DECEMBER 10, 2019

Artist Althea Thauberger and composer Kite’s collaborative performance of with the brass and reed band of the HMCS York was a highlight of the year. Photo: Gillian Harris / Toronto Biennial of Art

This year, Torontonians saw a new vision of the city thanks to the Toronto Biennial of Art. The inaugural, 72-day event was a thoughtful if low-key blockbuster that spanned several sites along Lake Ontario. Curators Candice Hopkins and Tairone Bastien, brought an outsider’s perspective on the waterfront as a site of rich thematic potential. They commissioned a video by New Mineral Collective, a group of artists based in Tromsø, Norway, that revealed the innate strangeness of Ontario Place, a view local curators may have missed.

Homegrown artists are typically under-represented in the international art world, but current and former Toronto residents are changing that. Brendan Fernandes was the star of this year’s Whitney Biennial in New York; Berlin-based Stephanie Comilang won the Sobey Art Award; and the prolific sculptor Tau Lewis exhibited in Miami, Los Angeles and Yorkshire.

Meanwhile, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s new pricing scheme – free admission for visitors 25 and under and a $35 annual pass – is here to stay, making one of the city’s biggest museums a bit more accessible. The city is following suit, firming up plans to expand Nuit Blanche to North York and Etobicoke, part of a commitment to ensure public art works are installed across the city, and not just downtown.

Here is our list of the best Toronto’s art scene had to offer in 2019.

Best Art Performance

Althea Thauberger & Kite, Call To Arms at Toronto Biennial of Art

Vancouver-based Thauberger and Montreal composer Kite collaborated with the brass and reed band of the HMCS York, a reserve division of the Royal Canadian Navy located at the foot of Bathurst, on this remarkable performance.

Call To Arms (which was also presented as an installation work) saw conch shells used as instruments to play a musical score based on the Fibonacci sequence (each number is the sum of the two previous numbers). The score echoed the conch’s nautilus shape, which the musicians further echoed while walking in a slow procession to the centre of a spiral. The coordination of two groups of people that rarely work together (artists and the military) was the point and executed to sublime effect.

Best Film Program

Drowned World at Cinesphere, curated by Charles Stankievech for Toronto Biennial of Art

Artist Stankievech made resplendent use of the Cinesphere’s giant IMAX screen with a five-hour film odyssey during the Biennial that included works about the deep sea, water, and islands. The result was a truly immersive experience.

Casting the Cinesphere as a monument that embodies both ambition and decline, the artist’s accomplishment is also notable for envisioning such a resonant use of the Cinesphere – turning the theatre into a holistic space for visual and sound installation in a way we haven’t quite seen before. A highlight was the audio work For Ann (Rising), from the 1969 composition by James Tenney. Based on the auditory phenomenon known as the Shepard tone (the illusion of a sound that is continually rising), this new version in multichannel sound proved how perfectly suited the Cinesphere is for immersive art, not just retro blockbusters.

Moyra Davey’s Subway Writers (2011/2014), a chromogenic-print photograph with tape, postage and ink, was on display at Ryerson Image Centre as part of a survey show. Photo: Courtesy the artist; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York; greengrassi, London

Moyra Davey’s Subway Writers (2011/2014), a chromogenic-print photograph with tape, postage and ink, was on display at Ryerson Image Centre as part of a survey show. Photo: Courtesy the artist; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York; greengrassi, London

Best Art Exhibition

Scotiabank Photography Award: Moyra Davey at Ryerson Image Centre

There was an off-the-cuff virtuosity to the work New York-based Canadian photographer Davey presented in this expansive survey show. Her colour-saturated photo-mail-artworks were the most stunning. Davey took intimate snapshots of people on the subway, or ultra close-up images of pennies, folded them up and mailed them to people in her life. The resulting works were presented with fluorescent tape she used to fold and pack the photos, making for a compelling visual puzzle. Once decoded as mailing remnants, the works cannily vacillated in meaning between their past lives in the postal system and newfound status as art on the wall.

Best Symposium

What Do We Mean When We Say “Content Moderation”? at Art Museum, University of Toronto

Organized by designer/curator Pegah Vaezi as part of her Master of Visual Studies degree at the University of Toronto, this symposium asked essential questions about how art and activism are affected by the web.

How to make web-based artworks was not at issue – instead, the discussion focused on what an ethical internet would look like. Panelists included the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian C. York and Jonathon Penney from U of T’s world-renowned cyber-security think tank Citizen Lab. A presentation by Montreal artist Skawennati, cofounder of the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace project, lightened the event’s dystopian vibe with a reminder that the idealistic goals of the early internet are still within reach.

Best Curatorial Initiative

The Black Curators Forum

The goal of this three-day event organized by the AGO and the Power Plant was to bring together Black curators from across the country, strengthen networks, excavate forgotten Black art made in previous eras and provide support to young Black artists in the present.

“While there is Black Art in the U.S. and the UK, it’s only just emerging in Canada,” writer and Canadian Art associate editor Yaniya Lee tells NOW. “Canada as a nation-state still thinks of itself as European. In actuality, Black people have been part of this settler colony for over 400 years.”

She adds that the forum ended up being “very practical. After thinking and theorizing about these issues, what comes next?”

he Jimmy James Evans Friendly Meeting Place and Centre for the Arts co-founders Jeff Bierk and “Jimmy” James Evans. Photo: Jeff Bierk.

Best Community Art Space

The Jimmy James Evans Friendly Meeting Place and Centre for the Arts

Artist Jeff Bierk is known for his large-scale photo works made in collaboration with friends who live on the streets of Toronto. Run out of Bierk’s studio on Dupont, the Jimmy James Evans Friendly Meeting Place and Centre for the Arts is an extension of his art practice.

Since launching in late 2018, Bierk has made the space available, for free, as a drop-in centre, and for a host of events, including art exhibitions and workshops put on by the mental health non-profit, Regeneration Community Services (which resulted in an exhibition at the independent art space the Loon). The goal is to resist gentrification or, as Bierk says, to assert the value of “lives that are often erased in a profit-driven urban context.”

Best New Art Space

SUGAR Contemporary

Named for the nearby Redpath Sugar Refinery, this waterfront space launched in the fall. Curators Ala Roushan and Xenia Benivolski initiated the project so they could propose alternative formats for public artworks, which typically take the form of sculpture or mural.

Instead, SUGAR offers themed programs that invite the public to attend an ongoing series of lectures and performances. A three-year experiment partially funded by developer Daniels Waterfront, SUGAR is a way to continue having vibrant and eclectic dialogues about city life that unaffordable rent and housing costs are putting under threat.

@rosemheather

Toronto wants to make the year 2021 all about public art

December 16, 2019 § Leave a comment

The city is revamping its public art strategy for the first time in 30 years, but Doug Ford’s developer-friendly Bill 108 is causing uncertainty

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER DECEMBER 4, 2019

After a move to Scarborough, city-run art event Nuit Blanche will expand to North York and Etobicoke in 2020. Photo: Samuel Engelking.

Toronto has declared 2021 “the Year of Public Art,” but new legislation proposed by Doug Ford is already causing uncertainty.

Mayor John Tory announced the city will update its public art strategy for the first time in around 30 years.

“We want to grow Toronto’s reputation as a creative city,” he said during a press conference on November 18, adding that the inspiration for the 10-year strategy – which delivers on one of his 2018 campaign promises – was a 2017 study led by OCAD University president Sara Diamond and University of Toronto associate professor of sociology Daniel Silver.

“This is a rare example of academic recommendations being put into action,” said Diamond, an advisor on the new strategy, at the press conference.

The 2017 study called for an update to the city’s existing public art policy, which was drafted in the 1980s. The program’s costs will be determined through the city’s 2020 budget process, and the proposed strategy will be considered by the city’s Executive Committee on December 11.

Tory noted that since 2017 the city has delivered on its goal of investing $25 per capita in the arts.

The public art strategy took the OCAD study as its starting point and added to that an extensive process of city-led consultation with the arts community, stakeholder groups and an advisory committee.

According to the proposed strategy, the city will coordinate an overall vision for Toronto’s public art offerings and ensure art is evenly spread out across the city. The idea is to create more landmarks, like the dog fountain at Berczy Park, that can foster stronger neighborhood identities and a deeper sense of belonging.

Another recommendation is better integration between public art and city planning, including coordination of how pieces might work together in dialogue with one another. The study also advises the city to broaden its definition of public art to include temporary works – basically, public art pop-ups that might include performances or screen-based works.

At the press conference, the mayor talked about Toronto Man, the controversial sculpture on St. Clair West by German artist Stephan Balkenhol. “I felt joy to see the debate that this work has inspired,” he said.

He added that art plays a role in branding a city’s identity. “I visited Austin,” he said, “to try and understand how that city got its reputation as a creative hub.”

Fostering Toronto’s reputation as a similar hub is a goal that lies behind the new strategy.

However, incoming provincial legislation from Doug Ford’s arts-averse conservative government could complicate the strategy.

Late last year, the Tories cut the Ontario Arts Council budget cut by $5 million, and chopped more than $2 million from the Indigenous Culture Fund, effectively eliminating it.

Now the premier’s developer-friendly Bill 108 jeopardizes Toronto’s ability to obtain benefits such as public art from developers.

To date, “developers are responsible for over 300 public art projects getting built,” councillor Gary Crawford, one of the leads on the Year of Public Art’s advisory committee, noted during the press conference.

The city runs three public art programs, including the Percent for Public Art Program, which mandates that one per cent of a new development’s cost is budgeted for public art initiatives. New commissions are funded by developers on a per-project basis and administered by the city.

Bill 108 puts the future of the program in doubt.

The Percent for Public Art Program dates back to the mid 80s, but the last 15 years saw the majority of new projects built thanks to the explosion of condo developments. Though the rate of new condos developments is slowing, the first quarter of 2019 saw 242 condominium projects constructed, an all-time high for the city, according to Urban Toronto.

“The province has replaced development-related revenue and benefit tools with the community benefits charge,” a city spokesperson told NOW. “The impact on the city’s Percent for Public Art Program is unknown.”

However, others see less reliance on developers for public art funding as a good thing.

“If [Bill108] helps to uncouple public art from condo development, this would be a positive effect,” says Rebecca Carbin, a public art consultant who advised on the city’s strategy. “One goal of the strategy was to look at other sources of funding. Currently the city’s dependence on developers creates public art deserts.”

Ensuring that public art is evenly spread out across the city is one of the strategy’s goals. Carbin notes the majority of new major public art commissions are concentrated in the core. The suburbs are home to many street mural projects, but the exact number of these and other works is a question that will be answered by a newly announced public directory of projects.

But public art is more than sculptures and murals. “One-hundred-year monuments and one-night events” are also considered public art, says Carbin.

At the press conference, the mayor made clear his commitment to the latter format, announcing that annual all-night art event Nuit Blanche will expand to Etobicoke and North York in 2020. The previously downtown-centric initiative branched out to Scarborough over the last two years.

The Year of Public Art will also be supported by new funding opportunities for artists, administered through the Toronto Arts Council (TAC). There will be grants of up to $20,000 for Nuit Blanche projects and up to $50,000 for Year of Public Art projects.

Given that Percent for Public Art Program budgets are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the TAC grants will cover only a portion of an ambitious art project. As such, major art institutions like the Toronto Biennial of Art and the Power Plant will partner to help raise funding.

While new money to make art is always welcome, how artists will  continue to afford to live in the city was not discussed at the mayor’s press conference.

Giving funds to public art initiatives is an easy concession developers can make. This allows them to expand the terms of a building project in the face of opposition. Working with artists helps to burnish their image, and Toronto condos are increasingly home to some impressively ambitious projects like Balkenhol’s sculpture or Israeli artist Ron Arad’s monumental work at Yonge and Bloor, Safe Hands.

But many people who make art may not be able to afford a unit in these buildings. A November 2019 report says that the average rent in Toronto is now $2,350 for a one-bedroom apartment. As a next step, Mayor Tory could declare 2020 as the Year of Affordable Housing.

@rosemheather

Beyond apologies: two artists set a table for reconciliation

September 30, 2019 § Leave a comment

After learning their ancestors were adversaries, AA Bronson and Adrian Stimson explore what it means to personally reconcile Canada’s colonial legacy

BY SEPTEMBER 25, 2019

A PUBLIC APOLOGY TO SIKSIKA NATION by AA Bronson and IINI SOOKUMAPII: GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? by Adrian Stimson as part of TORONTO BIENNIAL OF ART Photo: Samuel Engelking

The paths of history can make for improbable crossroads in the present.

Take the case of AA Bronson and Adrian Stimson. The artists have a lot in common – both are queer and use performative personas in their practices. But the two discovered they had a deeper connection: the historical antagonism of their ancestors.

Bronson’s great-grandfather, the Reverend John William Tims, was an Anglican missionary from England who worked to colonize Siksika Nation, the territorial home where Stimson lives in Alberta. Bronson felt he could acknowledge this past with an apology. Seeking a connection with the Siksika people led him to Stimson, a meeting that proved serendipitous. In 1886, Tims founded the Old Sun Boarding School for Boys. The residential school was named after Stimson’s great-grandfather, a chief of the Siksika Nation, part of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Western Canada.

In a phone interview from his home, not far from the grounds of the now-shuttered school, Stimson agrees the coincidence is uncanny. “The Blackfoot believe in a higher power. It does give you the feeling that larger forces are at work.”

This encounter led to three years of meetings and discussion that is now coming to a head in Toronto. In response to their shared history, the artists have made dual works that debuted at the Toronto Biennial of Art. As part of their work, Bronson also apologized to Stimson in two performances on the exhibition’s opening days (September 20 & 21).

Addressing Stimson, the Siksika Elders and biennial visitors, Bronson gave a relaxed, measured and sometimes emotional performance of his text. Wearing ceremonial dress, Stimson noted in his introductory remarks that all members of the Siksika delegation present were residential school survivors. After thanking Bronson, saying, “We accept your apology,” Stimson went on to personally shake hands with and thank all members of the audience. This open-hearted gesture powerfully underlined the emotional gravity of the moment.

It’s one of the more high-profile projects happening as part of the mega-art event, which organizers hope will eventually develop a larger international pull, similar to the Toronto International Film Festival. There’s a special focus on venues located close to the waterfront, giving substance to the theme “What does it mean to be in relation?,” which encompasses how the city relates to the body of water at its doorstep.

Biennial senior curator Candice Hopkins, a member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation in the Yukon, originally introduced the men in 2016. “AA is moving into difficult territory in a way I haven’t quite seen before,” she says. “[The project] is not about the past, but setting a relationship for the future.”

By working together, she adds, the artists “bring a personal dimension to ideas of reconciliation.”

Adrian Stimson’s installation Iini Sookumpaii: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? Photo: Samuel Engelking

To date, conversations around reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have primarily focused on government and institutional culpability. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in 2015 and this year’s final report by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls make clear the devastating and ongoing impacts of colonization on Indigenous people.

During a trip to Winnipeg in 2010, Hopkins had the opportunity to attend the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings. “I was struck at the time by how much emotional labour was put onto the backs of those who testified,” she recalls.

With A Public Apology To Siksika Nation, Bronson and Stimson are creating the conditions for a cultural reckoning: reconciliation in Canada is a shared responsibility.

Stimson expresses a similar idea about what the possible outcome of his work with Bronson could be. “To make change is to recognize that history. It’s a first step,” he says.

The two men first met in person under the glare of TV cameras while filming the CBC Arts documentary show In The Making. In an episode profiling Stimson’s work, the artists had dinner at his home with friends and elders from the Siksika reserve, some of whom are residential school survivors. Despite the initial awkwardness, Stimson describes the meeting as a “seamless first step in what would become three years of constant discussion.

“It was a generative process,” he adds. “Artists have their way of doing things.”

In the CBC show, he talks about their working relationship as part of a wider process of “rebuilding our histories together.” It’s not that Indigenous people just want settler Canadians to apologize, Stimson emphasizes. Rather, the simple request is being made that this historical legacy is acknowledged, so that the country as a whole can move forward together. These are the next steps that lie beyond artistic and ceremonial gestures.

“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission created a public dimension for the residential schools,” says Hopkins. “The land acknowledgments [that now precede most cultural events] came out of the TRC. But I want to see how this becomes actionable.”

A Governor General’s Award recipient in 2018, Stimson regularly exhibits in Toronto and has often performed as Buffalo Boy, a drag alter ego that takes a camp approach to macho stereotypes. The performance subverts the more threatening parts of masculinity to explore painful aspects of the past, for himself and his people.

Bronson, born in Vancouver and now based in Berlin, is a legendary artist whose career cuts a wide swath through the international art world. Starting out as a founding member of the renowned Toronto artist group General Idea in the 70s and 80s, the 73-year-old is a self-styled art shaman and healer. He founded the New York and Los Angeles Art Book Fairs, and was executive director of NYC art bookstore Printed Matter, a counterpart to Toronto’s Art Metropole, which General Idea founded in 1974.

General Idea had a kind of camp composite identity, a three-person art group (Bronson is the sole surviving member) known for arch commentary on the workings of their own aspirations for glamour and success.

Neither man’s artistic persona played a role in the apology at the Biennial. For this performance, Bronson knew he had “to strip down to his naked self.

“Making myself exposed for the sake of the apology was much harder to do than it would be if I was simply working in character,” he says. “The General Idea persona was embedded in a narrative.”

Self-mythologizing their lives as artists was a major early focus for General Idea. To make the apology, Bronson opted for what he calls a “declamatory approach.” It’s a different artistic tradition, one reserved for expressions of sincerity, as opposed to the ironic commentary that infused his earliest work.

Bronson’s work on this apology began when he was a child. “I have been hurtling towards this project for the last seven decades,” he writes in the opening sentence of A Public Apology To Siksika Nation, 14,000 copies of which are available as a free booklet at the main Biennial site on Lake Shore East.

In many ways, family legacy has shaped his existence. “I always planned to address this,” he says. In the text of his apology, Bronson writes: “We are a community of the living and the dead.”

“As a child, I felt the presence of spirits,” he explains. This continued into his adult life. “My intense experiences of spirit life were related to people who had died.”

His relatives passed down a story about an uprising against his great-grandfather on the Blackfoot reserve in 1895 that forced his ancestors to flee. On a 2015 visit to the archives in Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, Bronson discovered letters he had written to the museum in the 70s to request – unsuccessfully – documents about the uprising. At the time, his plan was to write a biography of Reverend Tims. He couldn’t confirm the uprising – it would remain hidden, mirroring the tendency among Canada’s official histories of settler relations with Indigenous people.

Adrian Stimson’s “response” to Bronson’s apology includes 68 photos of boys who attended the Old Sun residential school, which was named after his great-grandfather. Photo: Samuel Engelking

Stimson’s response (Bronson says their artistic partnership takes the form of a “call and response”) is a multifaceted installation that includes three large sculptures based on Blackfoot pictographs, a dining table set for 10 that features 10 small bronze bison sculpted by the artist. “Nine people were at the dinner where AA and I met,” he says. “I am adding the tenth setting for the ancestors.”

Also included are 68 photos taken from a family collection that feature boys who attended the Old Sun school. Used with permission, Stimson observes that the figures in these photos are “all our fathers from the Nation.”

Making tangible the connection between historical crimes and present political realities is part of the goal. Bronson describes the residential school practice of keeping children from their parents “very Trumpian.”

In his apology, the artist addresses an expansive range of people. Along with those on the Blackfoot Reserve who would have known and ultimately rebelled against Reverend Tims, Bronson addresses the people closest to him and his artistic collaborators. And he makes clear he also speaks to all political refugees, an acknowledgement that the colonial narrative continues in more ways than one: “the dispossessed and the abandoned… those who travelled across oceans but never made it to this safe haven of Canada.”

“When Bronson first reached out to me,” Stimson explains, “he was looking for someone to facilitate a connection with the Siksika Nation.”

Stimson describes himself as a “scout” reporting back to the Elders, and plans to arrange a private ceremony for Bronson to conduct his apology at the reserve.

Beyond merely “performing trauma,” Stimson sees Bronson as well-suited to the task, calling him “an agent of social change” because of the work he has done throughout his career as a representative of queer communities. General Idea is especially renowned for their activism during the AIDS crisis.

Noting that public discussion on Indigenous issues has taken steps forward in recent years, Bronson sees his participation at the Biennial as the beginning of a process. He does not simply want to perform an apology in front of an art audience. Asked about how he felt after the ceremony, Bronson said, “Having gone through it, I feel it is an ongoing process and I doubt I will have the real answer for some years.”

For his part, Stimson said “given the gravity of the apology” it needed to be him, and not his persona, who performed accepting it from Bronson. “The elders say ‘be humble, be generous,’” he says, adding that he is using the occasion to “put Buffalo Boy to bed,” as the logical conclusion of this phase of his work as an artist. “Every now and then Buffalo Boy has some sort of death, and then renewal,” he explains. “Putting him to bed lets us all have a little rest from his antics.”

Through art, the two men find a context that provides a useful – and non-confrontational – platform for people who are connected by past events to work through Canada’s cultural genocide and its continuing effects in the present.

Adrian Stimson’s “response” to Bronson’s apology includes 68 photos of boys who attended the Old Sun residential school, which was named after his great-grandfather. Photo: Samuel Engelking

“The apologies to the First Nations and Inuit peoples [by Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper, respectively] were important to the elders who were present. I can’t diminish that,” Stimson says. “But you need to walk the talk. What we are really looking for is systemic change.”

AA Bronson’s ancestors colonized Siksika Nation and were forced to flee in an uprising in 1895. Photo: Samuel Engelking

https://nowtoronto.com/culture/art-and-design/aa-bronson-adrian-stimson-reconciliation/

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